Senate passes partner benefits ban

The state Senate approved a bill yesterday that would ban public universities and state institutions from providing domestic-partner benefits to their employees. The legislation easily passed in a 30-5 vote.

If the bill is approved by the Kentucky House of Representatives, it would change statutes so that health benefits for state workers would only apply to the employee and the employee’s spouse and family members.

“A statement like this kind of signals to the rest of the country we’re a backward state,” said state Sen. Ernesto Scorsone, D-Lexington.

Scorsone, the only openly gay member of the legislature, said a domestic-partner benefits ban would negatively affect both current employees and potential recruits to universities.

To hire first-rate researchers, UK and other state agencies can’t offer a second-rate health plan, Scorsone said.

Rep. Stan Lee, R-Lexington, said the costs of domestic-partner benefits would be an unnecessary burden on Kentucky, especially at a time when state finances are low.

“It will cost money,” Lee said. “To say it won’t cost money is fiction.”

The bill will now go to the House of Representatives, where it will be assigned to a committee. During the last legislative session in 2007, a bill banning domestic-partner benefits passed in the Senate and then entered a House committee, where it died after an 8-8 committee vote that would have moved it to the House floor.

Part of Lee’s job as the House minority whip is to gauge how representatives feel about legislation, he said. If the current bill made it past the committee onto the House floor “it would pass overwhelmingly,” Lee said.

Scorsone said he doesn’t believe the bill has enough support to pass in the House.

Right now about 60 UK employees benefit from domestic-partner benefits, said UK spokesman Jay Blanton. The University of Louisville was the first public university to provide domestic-partner benefits, which started January 2007. UK added domestic-partners to its opt-in health plan during the April meeting of the Board of Trustees.

“The president has said time and again, and it’s the position of the university, that at the end of the day we’re hoping that the legislature will give universities the flexibility to make decisions about the health care of its employees and families,” Blanton said.

Lee said it’s time for domestic-partner benefits to pass through a committee and reach the House floor.

“The way I view it, and this is what the citizens want and what the citizens expect, is that this has been a continuing issue for a few years, and it’s time to debate it,” Lee said.

The House of Representatives already has a bill in committee that would ban domestic-partner benefits as well.

Rep. Richard Henderson, D-Jeffersonville, who sponsors the House bill, said his legislation is still receiving “overwhelming support” with phone calls from constituents and 20 co-sponsors. But because of the controversial nature of the bill, the process has slowed down and discussion within the committee has been put on hold.

“I’m not really pushing the bill right now because there’s been a slow down around here because the new governor is just getting his feet wet,” Henderson said. “But I’m not one to let an issue sit dormant, so after the budget is settled, I’ll make a real push.”

Staff writer Blair Thomas contributed to this story.